How the U.S. News Rankings Affect American Legal Education
Clark, Hunter R., Judicature
For law school deans, April is the crudest month. That is when U.S. News & World Report (USN) publishes its annual rankings of the nation's law schools. Based on those rankings, prospective students will pick which law school to attend; alumni will determine whether and how much to donate; faculty will decide whether to stay or leave; and employers will choose where to interview job candidates. Most importantly for the deans themselves, university administrators will move to fire or retain those who have been running their law schools. As one commentator has observed, "[D]eans can expect the ranking scorecard increasingly to serve as a measure of their individual job performance."1 The American Association of Law Schools (AALS) concedes, "Like it or not rankings are here and are influential."2
That is an understatement. One dean's recollection of events at his law school typifies the histrionics a disappointing ranking can spark:
The effects were immediate hysteria. I had alumni writing me left and right. I had my board of directors asking me what had suddenly happened that [we] had suddenly [dropped in the rankings] .... It was an irrational response because the people writing mostly actually knew about the school. I had my student body protesting, and they're here and they know in the course of one year that nothing had happened. But they all essentially were saying, "What did you do?"'
Nancy Rapoport, former law dean at the University of Houston, may have preempted the axe when she tendered her resignation a couple weeks after her school slipped to 70th in USN's rankings. (For 2008, Houston rebounded to No. 60.) Her departure followed a public confrontation with angry law students and faculty that had at one point driven her to tears.4
When the University of Texas School of Law slipped down the ladder, Dean Lawrence G. Sager proactively mollified the Longhorn faithful. In an April 5, 2007 letter addressed "To the Members of the UT Law Community," Sager discounted the USN result as a "reporting anomaly" and "one-time hiccup."5 He went on to attack USN's methodology. He concluded with a resolute vow, "This will not happen again."6 For 2007, Texas ranked No. 16. For 2008, it descended two more notches-to No. 18despite Sager's assurances.
USN critics, for their part, dismiss the yearly rankings as an April fool joke. The general public is clearly in the market for objective standards by which to compare law schools. Given the high cost of a legal education, this is perfectly understandable. According to the ABA, the average tuition at a publicly-funded school is over $9,000 for residents and approximately $20,000 for non-residents.7 Private law school tuition averages roughly $26,000.8 Law schools typically discount their tuitions with merit or need-based scholarships. Nevertheless, The American Lawyer reported earlier this year that the average law student graduates with between $16,000 and $85,000 in debt.9 Critics assert that commercial ranking services like USN cynically exploit this market for law school information, the public's need to know. They complain that commercial rankings are a sham that distort and oversimplify what it is that law schools do. Last year, 173 law deans signed a letter to LSAT takers. In it, they warned,
Several commercial enterprises promote "ranking" systems that purport to reduce a wide array of information about law schools to one simple number that compares all 192 ABA-approved law schools with each other. These ranking systems are inherently flawed because none of them can take your special needs and circumstances into account when comparing law schools . . . The factors [listed by students as] most important . . . are excluded entirely or severely undervalued by all of the numerical ranking systems.10
Worse is that as the rankings grow in influence and importance, law schools come under increased pressure to comport their policies and practices with what it is the rankings measure. …